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Research staff

16 October 2008

Researchers in higher education form a large and distinct group of UCU members whose contracts of employment are often characterised by insecurity.

Many researchers remain on fixed-term contracts, despite legislation intended to halt the abuse of successive fixed-term contracts and other, whilst moved to 'open-ended' contracts, constantly face threats of dismissal as research grants end or a particular funding stream runs dry.

UCU believes there are better ways to treat researchers. We have been campaigning for permanent contracts and increased security for many years. We have supported legal challenges against the continued use of fixed-term contracts, most notably in the case of Ball v Aberdeen:

Dr Ball had been continuously employed at the university under three successive contracts which had each been linked to external short term fixed-term funding. When Dr Ball sought confirmation of his permanent status under the Regulations he was advised that as the university had no guarantee of further funding beyond the end date in his contracts they believed there was an objective justification to continue to employ Dr Ball on fixed-term contracts.

The tribunal found that the university could not establish objective grounds for continuing Dr Ball's employment on a fixed term basis and rejected the university's case that short term funding could automatically provide a justification for employment on a fixed term contract.

The concordat - insecure employment and unfulfilled promise

More than 10 years ago the UK higher education sector signed up to a concordat to support the career development of researchers. This was supposed to usher in a new era of support for researchers, committing universities to take a series of actions to support research careers.

UCU supported the concordat but we also saw its shortcomings. For example, the concordat committed universities to do more to prepare researchers for a diversity of possible careers but it did much less to ensure that they got more job security.

Now, ten years on careers are just as precarious as they were in 2006 with around 70% of research staff on fixed-term contracts. The Concordat Strategy Group has now reviewed and published a revised Researcher Development Concordat which states that institutions must seek to improve job security for researchers, 'through more effective redeployment processes and greater use of open ended contracts'. But UCU responded that universities should be obliged to work with trade unions to reduce the use of fixed-term contracts. We are also disappointed that proposals to allow 20% of a researcher's time for professional development have been left out of the revised concordat, which instead calls for 10 days pro rata, per year.

Read our full response to the revised concordat

Read also:  UCU's response to the Concordat review [182kb]

Researcher survival

Information The UCU researchers' survival guide offers practical advice on a wide range of career issues.

We have developed two leaflets aimed at research managers - one specifically for UCU members and one for research managers more generally. These can be reproduced and used for any local campaigning:

See also our researchers' charter:  Researchers' Charter [32kb]

The materials provided as part of the Stamp Out Casual Contracts campaign apply equally to researchers on fixed-term contracts as to other groups of staff.

Last updated: 17 September 2019